Loren Tate: Time to learn your lesson

Loren Tate: Time to learn your lesson

Mary Willingham is being chastised by Tar Heel fans and temporarily muted by her administration. They’re checking her results.

She is the North Carolina learning specialist who screened 182 Tar Heel athletes between 2004 and 2012 (85 percent were football and basketball players) and formulated a research paper showing that “about 60 percent had reading scores between fourth and eighth grade.” She called 10 percent of the athletes “functionally illiterate.”

This is the same university in which a now-departed African and Afro-American Studies scholar has been indicted for receiving $12,000 to teach a no-show class.

My questions:

— Even if Willingham is 50 percent wrong, if her numbers are way off, isn’t her research a damning indictment of UNC’s operation? How can the school justify taking one athlete with sub-high school reading skills?

— If you’re fudging at the enrollment level, isn’t it a natural next step for advisers to direct athletes into phantom classes to cover that initial fraud?

— Is this an isolated case or are other universities even now scrambling to cover their own academic misconduct?

— Problems have been popping up like Redenbachers on the UNC campus since 2010. Are we to believe that one instructor, Julius Nyang’oro, worked alone in his deception when his course was just one of dozens — DOZENS — in that department that attracted UNC athletes and never met?

— How many win-at-any-cost operations are out there, creating a path for sub-marginal students and implying by their actions that they see no correlation between athletics and intelligence?

Seen this before

A scan of NCAA basketball champions since 1990 raises plenty of doubts.

It begins in 1990 with UNLV, whose coach, Jerry Tarkanian, waged a running battle with NCAA investigators for years. Who knows what really happened in Las Vegas?

North Carolina won in 1993 and 2005. We’re finally coming to an understanding of what’s going on there.

Kentucky, with titles in 1996, 1998 and 2012, is operating like a Pony Express station, star athletes stopping there just long enough to change horses. Coach John Calipari has seen his Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis vacated, and his rent-a-player system at Kentucky has made a mockery of the student-athlete concept. What is the Wildcat graduation rate?

UConn won championships in 2004 and 2011, but it was ineligible for the tournament last season due to a failed academic progress rate.

Within the Big Ten, we watched cheating blowups take down Michigan and Indiana basketball operations, only to see them rise again from those ashes. And Ohio State has demonstrated to Penn State how to bounce back from NCAA football sanctions, both unrelated to academics.

Show some class

My conclusion:

Academic fraud is merely one piece of the basketball puzzle, but there are clear academic-related reasons why (1) the Big Ten harks back to Michigan State in 2000 for its only NCAA title since 1990, (2) of 25 top-performing freshmen, 24 are attending schools outside the Big Ten and (3) elites in the upcoming freshman class are similarly uninterested in this conference.

We are flooded with hints that systems exist throughout this country with the primary goal of helping marginal students enroll and stay eligible. If you think North Carolina is the only one, I have a Ponzi scheme you might be interested in.

There are connivers out there gaming the system. All the time. Just like the doping experts who stay one step ahead of the tests for performance-enhancing drugs. For NCAA investigators, this is like swatting flies in an Alabama summer. As a sleuth, wouldn’t you be suspicious after reading an AP study showing that, at 39 schools responding, 50 percent of football players were clustered in one, two or three majors?

Look up. We’re just a few weeks removed from Florida State celebrating its football championship. This is the same school that five years ago was put on probation (among other penalties) for major academic violations involving 61 athletes in nine sports. The race between Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno ultimately revolved around who’d have to forfeit the most victories.

Cheating is too frequent to list them all, too rampant for a realist to take seriously this so-called fun-and-games department. And if the UI has always been clean from an academic standpoint, the past impacts the present with the “slush fund” scandal of 1966, the Mike White ouster after the 1987 season, and the Deon Thomas incident around 1990 ... all essentially related to extra benefits.

My last questions: Is the UI in the minority with its stringent approach to academics? Doesn’t “the word” spread and, as an ill-prepared student, wouldn’t you have felt a lot more comfortable getting free grades at North Carolina than taking finals?

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Green Shirt wrote on January 30, 2014 at 7:01 am

Should the NCAA strip UNC of its most recent titles, the Illini might have their long sought-after national championship (2005). Given the way things have been going on the hardwood, it may be our best chance.

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 30, 2014 at 11:01 am

It doesn't work that way. UNC would just have their wins and championship vacated. There would be no official champion that year if that were to happen.

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 30, 2014 at 11:01 am

What's going on at UNC isn't anything new- colleges skirt academic requirements when it comes to athletes and look the other way when it comes to not only academics but also legal and behavioral issues. Illinois is no different in that regard either- while we have had higher academic standards for athletes to get playing time (I used to tutor and you weren't playing for Weber if you didn't do your own work and have over a 2.8GPA), we also have had our fair share of behavioral issues, and it is remarkable how many of our athletes over the years have majored in Speech Comm and Leisure Studies/Sports Rec., or remained undeclared is LAS General Studies. Yes, we have the rare engineering or business major, but let's not get on our high horse too quickly here.

By the way, really the only thing that makes this UNC case somewhat unique is that this is the most advanced and administration complicit level of cheating since at least the Minnesota academic scandal in the 90s (grades were inflated and papers/hw were written by grad assistants). Minnesota got 5 years probation and 5 BB scholarship losses and all wins vacated in that time. I can't see the NCAA doing the same to a blue blood like UNC, but if this is the case, UNC should be getting a death penalty including bans from postseason play over that period, loss of scholarships, and no televised games for at least a year.

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 30, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Oh, and really, if we're going to actually point the finger here, let's point it at the NCAA and their ridiculously low base requirements for athletes to be academically eligible. How can you possibly say academics for athletes are important when all they need are a 2.5GPA and an 800SAT score to qualify for an athletic scholarship? Most monkeys can do that. And then to retain that scholarship in college all an athlete needs to do is average at least a 2.0GPA. Considering all the access they get to the highest end tutors, graduate assistants, and professors, it should be nearly impossible for any athlete to get under a 2.0GPA. If the NCAA was actually serious about the "scholar-athlete" they'd make it such that academic standards for athletes were raised to at least a somewhat consistent level with the base requirements for a non-athlete to be enrolled at the university.

calvin wrote on January 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm

The College reform, so-called, of the 1990's was to eliminate a tier of labor that was very expensive.  Leandro Drake, I believe, was the student at Indiana State, who could not name the twelve months of the year.  He was the poster child of this movement.  After that, even the NCAA said in their report, a comparison couldn't be made of the colleges because the courses weren't the same.  Meaning that, if a university such as Michigan sets up an athletic track for a segment of athletes, there is no national guideline as to what minimum requirements are for proficiency.

DaisyJ wrote on January 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm

time to learn this lesson eveyone. The new state farm center ticket price for those that have been loyal fans is about to be turned upside down. And why, greed, money, and more money. If you were in A or B, guess what, you are taking it up the ying yang if you want to watch other than good old C. When they get done lowering the floor, High C will not just be a drink anymore. Loren, time you got after this message the U of I is about to deliver.